I wrote yesterday about poems that feature a movie star, and the dangerous glamour of such poems in a celebrity culture like our own. These usually elegiac works are always welcome—at least in my study—and yet they fall short of fully satisfying us, don’t they?, once the frisson of sympathy passes. More significant, to my mind, are poems about movies themselves, movies as art. In the academy we term the way one art depicts another “ekphrasis,” as when Keats turns the Grecian urn around before our eyes to describe its frieze of figures. The excitement about moving pictures expanded the practice enormously. I first became aware of the trend when Edward Field’s pathbreaking volume Variety Photoplays came my way in 1967, with its campy tributes “Curse of the Cat Woman,” “Frankenstein” and the superior “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “White Jungle Queen,” and others. Field was fortunate in being able to see these movies as a kid in community theaters, on big screens, before television diminished their spectacular appeal. (I’ve only seen them on a TV screen.) The poems had all the juice of adolescence in them, with their taste for allegories of violent sexual possession and ritualized speech. (Tag lines from horror movies were a binding lingua franca for Field’s generation and made their way into poems.) The following generation, determined to set down their nostalgic poems about the Star Wars and Godfather sagas, has found much to emulate in Field’s exuberant, burlesque style.
Interesting, isn’t it?, that the movie theater itself looms so large in movie poems. (Variety Photoplays was the name of a Manhattan theater.) A recent anthology of poems about airflight, On the Wing, edited by Karen Yelena Olsen, shows us that earlier poems celebrated the sublimity of rising into space and the glory of motion, whereas most contemporary poems on the subject now focus on the airport, place of transit and infinite ennui, while poems of flight tell us in bored tones about the bad food, bad smells, and uncomfortable seats of twenty-first century aviation. In some venues the movie theater was always more splendid, more sordid, more worthy of lyric elevation, than the films it displayed, and as Frank O’Hara reminded us in “Ave Maria,” the adventures one encountered there weren’t confined to kissing and mauling on the screen. My favorites along these lines: Lois-Ann Yamanaka, “Saturday Afternoon at the Pahala Theatre” and Garrett Hongo, “The Underworld” (about the Orpheum in Los Angeles). It’s not the movie palace, per se, that enthralls poets but the circumambient atmosphere, the presence of nearby bodies. Check out Rita Dove’s downscale setting in “Watching Last Year in Marienbad at Roger Haggerty’s House in Auburn, Alabama” in Grace Notes.
Poems about paintings are still the aristocrats of the ekphrastic genre. Poems about moving pictures are more hoi polloi, the indecorous vulgarian, almost, at times, the Fool. The refusal of the great Modernists to write about the movies closed off their historical period from the present. Stevens had Picasso, W. C. Williams had Brueghel, Pound praised
the calligraphy of Cathay and paused to admire Mantegna’s Gonzaga, His Heirs and His Concubines in the canto on Usura, H.D., who edited the first journal of film criticism and was hailed as the equal of Garbo when she acted in Borderline, wrote no encomia for Citizen Kane or La Régle du Jeu. Marianne Moore admired the plates in books of natural history but followed the lead of those who disdained the “prose kinema”—Pound’s swipe at popular film as well as popular fiction. After World War II, it was child’s play for young poets to fill the niche left open for them by the guardians of elite culture. For poets after midcentury, it is as unimaginable that one censor out the second (sloppier) nature of film as the first nature of birds, beasts, and flowers.
There is a whole section of poems about films in The Faber Book of Movie Verse, edited by Philip French, including a couple on Citizen Kane. I’ve published essays on Jorie Graham’s treatment of Lolita in “Fission” (in my book about poets and movies) and Lynda Hull’s meditation on The Misfits (The Iowa Review, Spring 1999). But for my purposes here I’d like to shine a brief spotlight on Charles Harper Webb, no stranger to readers of The Best American Poetry series, who has written some fascinating poems about anti-classics that confirm all of Pound’s worst nightmares about popular culture. The quintessential poem on film, to my ear, is “Fantasy Girl,” a rhapsodic retelling of the plot of Color of Night, that over-the-top thriller featuring Bruce Willis and Jane March in a sado-masochistic duet that is way beyond being either good or bad art. Webb gets the feverish tone just right, as he speaks here to the protagonist:
When the scene cuts to hang-gliders, it’s not corny; and when she leaves
you strapped by one hand to the bed, you laugh—it’s just enough
depravity. It doesn’t matter if she fucks half L.A., including women—
if she stabs her therapist thirty times, hangs an S & M freak by his heels,
carves “Rich Bitch” into his hide, and slits his throat—if she used
the same body moves, same whispers, same smile, she’s using on you.
It doesn’t matter if she’s cooked for them too—ahi with steamed
greens and rigatoni perfectly arranged on white bone china
with a brown-checked border—wearing the same ruffled French
maid apron, nipples glowing through, slim derriere
(ass is too crude, butt is too blunt) with her rose tattoo bared
as she bends to pull perfect sourdough biscuits from the oven . . .
It’s difficult to stop quoting because the pile-up of lurid detail is so compelling, so laugh-out-loud accurate. The movie may or may not be a satire on the “fantasy girl” of the male voyeur but the poem certainly renders its homage to this psychopathic femme fatale with Hollywood gloss packed like red peppers into its stately quatrains. And unlike Edward Field, Webb’s mentor, Webb follows the inflamed spectator/speaker back to his ordinary life and its happy ending. The “you” is now himself, as it has been all along, but now plodding to bed
and let your wife—with no gaffer to back-light a transparent gown
or bounce diamond-glitter off her eyes, with no director
to coax out each breathy line, with no shadowy, hellish past,
only the usual dark and tortured human history
to heat her kiss, only her arms that would have pulled out
of their sockets if she dangled like Jane—draw you back
into her body, back into this flawed and precious life.
Though both authors might resist the comparison, I find similarities of technique and attitude between Webb and Richard Howard, whose unfairly neglected book Talking Cures (2002) contains an inspired section in which famous films are reviewed by Modern Masters who predeceased them: Henry James on Now, Voyager; Joseph Conrad on Lost Horizon; George Meredith on Woman of the Year; Rudyard Kipling on King Kong; Willa Cather on Queen Christina. Show me another living poet who could bring off not one but five tours-de-force, each mimicking the style of the proseur, his or her characteristic tone of hauteur, and with film commentary of such insight one wants to promote Howard at once to A. O. Scott’s seat at the Times. His project is manifestly Modernist, with all the intertextual and allusive textures we expect from these geniuses. Here is James reproving his sister artwork:
what they did and what they should not have done;
chiefly there glows for me the figures of
a Changed Woman who
understands when she is spoken to,
I prize, as I find it more and more rare. For the rest,
on the mild midnight of our actual
screen, I see a phosphorescence, not a flame:
mostly abuse of
voluminous dialogue, absence
of all the other phases
of presentation, so that line and point are replaced
by a vast formless featherbediness,
billows in which one sinks and is lost.
Yes, I suppose James would have written in syllabic verse as a way of ordering the floating syntax by which he rendered the featherbeddy lives of his self-indulgent characters. Once again, the triumph of the literary over the cinematic is secured. Thank you, Charles. Thank you, Richard. Thank you, readers. More tomorrow.